New York cartoonist Jules Feiffer (still working and teaching at 83) wrote two scabrous plays at the end of the 1960s, one a black social satire, Little Murders, the other a send-up of political bumbling and fall-out after a fictional "friendly fire" disaster in the Vietnam War, The White House Murder Case.
The first was directed successfully for the RSC in London by Christopher Morahan, who now revives the second at the Orange Tree 40 years after its premiѐre, perhaps aiming to catch a mood of the forthcoming US Presidential elections; the play’s President, Emmerson Hale, has just six weeks to sort out two big problems before the polls open.
First: who was behind, or responsible for, the blowback of nerve gas that has wiped out hundreds of US soldiers in the Brazil jungle; and second, who has left a murder victim draped over his desk in the Oval Office, speared with the shaft of a golf driver and flying a “Make Love Not War” flag?
For all the deftness of Morahan’s production, the piece doesn’t really hang together all that well, tailing off badly in the second act as the jumpy inquisition and cross-questioning of all the President’s men is increasingly over-shadowed by some M.A.S.H-like scenes in the Brazilian jungle, where two soldiers are literally losing their limbs.
The black humour of this is one of decreasing dividends, though James Alper and Joseph Balderrama give their gruesome dilemma their best shot, struggling in the quagmire, the latter finally waving his implausibly detached todger like a white flag.
But there’s no energetic two-way traffic between the jungle scenes, played on one side of the Orange Tree stage, and Washington on the other, where the blind general who has survived the catastrophe (John Chancer in a make-up of rubbery skin bubbles and blotches) has to provide a first-hand account, while the other top rank officials, murder suspects in this office as well as abroad, jostle for position.
One of my favourite comic actors, Bruce Alexander, is on surprisingly subdued form as the President, buttoning up his tics and tantrums inside a sporty barathea blazer, while Paul Birchard as a blackboard boffin, Steven Crossley as the postmaster general, Craig Pinder as the secretary of defence and Michael Roberts as the attorney general, squirm in their seats and play pass the buck as the evidence mounts and the plot not so much thickens as coagulates.
The liberal-minded President’s wife (Samantha Coughlan) wears tight white trousers, which are probably being held against her along with her inconvenient critical opinions. For the questions are still the same: do we really know what we’re doing in foreign wars, and how do we attribute blame and responsibility when things go wrong?